Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2015

False Light Led to Shipwreck at Spring Point Ledge


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Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse as it appeared in ...

Over the years many vessels had gone aground near Spring Point Ledge in South Portland, Maine. But no vessel had actually wrecked there until that fateful wild night of March 12, 1876 when the barkentine Harriett S. Jackson crashed smack on top of the hidden ledge. Unfortunately, at that time there was no Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse that guarded against the treacherous reef. And early in the morning of that wild day in 1876, the little square-rigged ship was quartering the long swells a good 50 miles outside of Portland Harbor toward its date with destiny.

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From about five miles out, Seaman Herbert Starr ...

She was bound light, from New York, for Wiscasset, Maine where she would pick up a load of cargo for delivery to Cuba. But a glance at the sky and the feel of the swells warned her skipper, Capt. William T. Bacon, of trouble to come, and very early that morning he decided to run for the shelter of Portland Harbor.

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This is the true story as recalled in February of 1936 to reporter Edward H. Carlson by Ordinary Seaman Herbert G. Starr, who was on the Harriet S. Jackson that fateful night in 1876.

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Vintage post card of Portland Head Light, in Cape ...

Up forward with the other sailors, young Herbert G. Starr, 20, an ordinary seaman making his second voyage offshore, felt that mysterious half-instinctive sense of foreboding the captain had voiced when he ordered the course altered to take the vessel into Portland.

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Captain Bacon was sure he had seen the yellow ...

Three rings circled the sun whose cloud-slivered rays glinted on the rolling, laden hued seas, seas which, though they were not breaking, nevertheless slid under a laboring ship’s hull with a definite muffled roar.

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This vintage post card of Spring Point Ledge ...

Young Herbert Starr couldn’t have defined the sound of those round-backed rollers. “Perhaps I only sensed it,” he recalled later. But at any rate, the appearance of the sullen sky and the uneasy seas, and the whining of the easterly breeze through the barkentine’s shrouds that morning, were enough to make the skipper and crew realize that the dreaded storm of the Equinox was brewing somewhere down beyond the eastern horizon. It was high time to run to shelter.

As the breeze freshened, the Harriett S. Jackson’s men crowned on all available sail, and the barkentine boiled through the marching swells “with a bone in her teeth,” racing for Cape Elizabeth and the haven of Portland Harbor beyond. (In view of what happened when she finally reached the harbor, the Jackson might have been safer had she had been held offshore that night, to fight the little storm on its own wild terms . . . But they didn’t know what lay ahead then.)

At 8 p.m. when they made their first landfall, the storm had not yet broken upon them, and the crew took hope at the booming cry of the bow lookout: “Two white lights, three points on the port bow, sir” – the Cape Elizabeth Two Lights were still in operation in those days.

Capt. Bacon immediately ordered his men aloft to shorten sail. Up to the main crosstrees scurried Ordinary Seaman Starr and his watch partner. And then the storm broke.

It came in a burst of wind out of the eastward, and a vicious bombardment of stinging, blinding snow.

When Seaman Starr picked up the sail gasket on the creaking and handed it around to his partner, he saw the Two Lights burning brightly, five or six miles off in the blackness to port. In the half minute that elapsed as the other seaman took a turn around the sail and handed the gasket back around the mast, the gleam of the twin lighthouses was blotted from sight as the smothering snow squall struck.

Half suffocating in the gale-driven snow, the men aloft got their canvas down and somehow stowed in the gaskets. Then back on deck, all hands were ordered forward to keep a sharp lookout for the light on Portland Head. If they failed to see the light in time, the thundering seas at the harbor mouth would smash them all to pulp on the black rocks of the headland they all knew.

But they sighted the light. And the sight of it nearly stopped their heartbeats because, instead of being a quarter-mile off to port where they expected to see it, the lantern loomed suddenly through the flying snow, almost over their heads. “The light,” Seaman Starr recalled, “was directly in line with our fore yard.” The ship had come within scant fathoms of disaster, and if she had indeed been loaded, she probably would have struck right then and there.

No navigation lights marked the ship channel then, from Portland Head past the Spring Point ledges and into the inner harbor. But Captain Baco hauled offshore in the darkness to the safe depths of mid-channel, and eased his ship along through the coursing seas toward anchorage beyond. All that was necessary now was that he should get one more bearing, from Bug Light on the top of the South Portland breakwater.

The men up forward continued to strain their eyes into the flying snow, searching for the welcome yellow gleam that would be the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse, which they commonly knew as Bug Light. They never saw it.

Skipper Sees Light

But Captain Bacon, watching from the poop deck, suddenly saw – only for an instant – a quick glimmer of light off to port. Mentally he calculated the ship’s speed, the distance she must have come from Portland Head. And he was convinced the gleam of light must have been the beam of Bug Light.

“Starboard helm,” was the order and the ship swung around to port taking what her skipper confidently believed was just the right course to bring her around the breakwater and upstream to the inner anchorage.

And then, in a series of dull thuds, the Harriett Jackson struck – gently, but firmly – on the hidden ledge of the unmarked Spring Point.

All night she pounded heavily as the lumpy seas picked her up and dropped her with deadly monotony on the half-tide ledge. Dawn found her hard aground -– and only 12 feet from the Fort Preble sea wall.

So close she lay that a plank was run out from her taffrail to the seawall. And Seaman Starr, with a line tied around his waist, clambered along the plank to shore, plowed through drifted snow to Ferry Village, and brought news of the wreck to a startled community.

And the light which had lured them to the rocks? Investigation disclosed it had been a lamp set by a lady in the window of a home near Fort Preble to guide her son through the snowdrifts of Ferry Village that previous evening.

Striking the ledge had not extensively damaged the barkentine, despite her all-night pounding. But as a half a dozen steamers strained at their hawsers the following morning in the first attempt to pull the Harriett S. Jackson free, a tow line snapped and a heavy sea picked up the luckless barkentine and battered her against the nearby seawall, virtually destroying the vessel.

This had been Seaman Starr’s second sea going voyage. His previous voyage had also ended up in a shipwreck. But he decided to make one more voyage, but after that, he retired from sailing, saying it was just too dangerous and he settled into a business life in the Portland area.

But the government worked slowly. It took a little over twenty years before the government built a lighthouse on Spring Point Ledge; it was first lighted in 1897.

In his retirement years in 1936 at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Marilyn S. Webber, who owned the Webber Travel Service in Portland, he seldom contemplated the lighthouse on Spring Point Ledge without recalling that wild night in 1876 when a lamp in a Ferry Village window –- placed there to guide somebody’s “wandering boy” home through the howling storm – piled up the Harriett S. Jackson on the hidden, unmarked rocks of Spring Point Ledge.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2015 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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